I’m sitting on an airplane, flying back to London after a weekend on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I’m hurtling through the air at over 800 km/ hour and I’m crying. This isn’t anomalous, over the years crying on planes has become normal for me. I gather it’s something to do with being suspended in the air, caught between the former and the future, not limited to any time zone or destination, just the cloud-covered present. I cry because I’m able to feel the weight of the world, while I’m weightless.
A friend of mine died the other day.
In reality, she was actually more of a stranger, although we had connected online. It’s a strange phenomenon of this modern world, the way you can feel as if you know someone, without actually knowing them. The way in which technology can interweave our lives, fuse worlds dispersed across oceans and land, how the death of a far-away individual can penetrate your heart like the passing of someone you knew personally. She faced ovarian cancer, twice, and used her platform to expose all the grit and ugliness that is this disease, without any filters or fear. The scars, the balding head, the fatigue, the fluctuating weight, grief over her stolen fertility. She revealed an indomitable spirit in the face of an uncertain future. She taught me lessons on how to be vulnerable, how to honour my own story.
I think about dying a lot these days. The first time I went through this cancer thing death never really entered my mind. Yes, I contemplated the fragility of my own mortality, but there was no lingering doubt over whether or not I’d survive. I’d do the 6 months of chemo and then I’d be on my way. This time around has been different. Treatment has been harder, the consequences of not responding to it, more indelible. Having cancer makes you realise that the doctors, in whose hands we place our trust; it turns out they aren’t omniscient. We like to think that there’s some kind of magic formula to fix every ailment. The reality is that the medical system is largely trial and error and the curative nature of these drugs is not guaranteed.
Nothing is guaranteed.
I’m not actually that afraid of dying; in some ways, I think it might be quite peaceful. But, I am desperately afraid of not living. I’m afraid that I won’t get to find the kind of love my parents shared, to write a book, to have a family of my own, to travel further and wider, to pursue my passions, to have more experiences, more moments, more time.
I also think a lot about the purpose of life (yes, being ill makes you think a lot). I think about this idea that is constantly proliferated by our societal institutions, that the raison d’etre of life is obtaining success. It’s earning a high salary and a respectable career and amassing a myriad of shiny things. It’s ‘having something to show for yourself’. Sure, it’s evident that these things play a role in our inherent sense of fulfillment. But when it comes down to living or dying they just aren’t the things you stick around for.
Studying my masters in London and going through cancer for the second time, it feels like I’ve been planted in two diametrically opposed worlds, as if I’m juggling paradoxical experiences, going from treatment to lectures, from the hospital to the library. I sit in the waiting room each week, humbled by the value of basic health and the importance of appreciation and then suddenly I’m thrust back into a climate of competition and continual striving. I’m surrounded by all of this ambition, this hunger to learn and achieve, to gain eminence and recognition, while my mind is simultaneously being split open, the truth of what really matters illuminated, this veneer of millennial success, shattered. I’m unlearning all the conditioning, the notion that the goal of life is to earn, accumulate and be applauded and learning that the real mark of a good life, of a life well lived, is one that is enjoyed. That is celebrated. That is appreciated.
I do want success, I do want a career, I do want money and nice things and stature. I’m not immune to the aspirational cravings that capitalism has entrenched within us all. But being ill, watching as an incredible young woman was denied the rest of her life, moving to a first world city and witnessing the unprecedented level of stress and anxiety pervading the minds of so many young people because they’re afraid they aren’t doing enough, all of it has pushed me to understand that what makes a life worth living isn’t a profusion of fancy institutions listed on a resumé or the silver in your back pocket.
It’s exploring a new city alone. It’s singing at full volume to hits of the 90’s with you best friend as you drive through rugged Spanish valleys, it’s skateboarding down a hill together, bathing in the icy ocean, sprawling out in the sunshine and talking about life and love and everything in between.
This is the juice, the crux, the peak of the mountaintop.
It’s dancing in the living room with your humans to songs that fill you with warm nostalgia, it’s the untroubled laughter of a playing child, the ineffable blue of the ocean, bird song at dawn, the airport arrivals lounge, a home-cooked meal between old friends.
It’s a knowing smile shared across a room between two lovers, it’s art that shakes you awake and reminds you that someone else has felt this way before, it’s the smell of books and a dog’s happy grin, it’s a heart-wrenching sob on a metal tube that’s soaring through the air.
It’s learning that everything comes and everything goes and we can’t hold onto any of it. That this life is holy and precious and we must enfold ourselves into the necks of the humans we love, while we can.
While we can.